I'm gonna catch a lot of crap for this, but I've been a big fan of R.E.M. for a few years, and with the possible exception of "Life's Rich Pageant", I think "Up" might be their best album so far, and it will not get any better. As the 90's emerged, R.E.M. traded in a lot of the jangle pop for a slightly harder, more rock sound (best seen with "Monster") at the end of the millenium, the issues faded into schmaltz, or as one reviewer put "sugar in Michael Stipe's tank". "Up" captures them dead center, with a mix of sentimentality, rock, experimentation, and the absence of Berry. And it hits perfectly.
For the casual R.E.M. fan, there's classic material like "Airportman" and "You're In the Air". Quiet, lyrical odes that are unmistakably the work of Stipe and company. Slightly more upbeat are encouraging songs like "Walk Unafraid" and "Hope" (which is my second most quotable song from this album). And downbeat laments like "Sad Professor" and "Why Not Smile" offer hope to the hopeless.
Granted, at times it can read a lot like one of those self-help seminars ("I hate where I wound up", "pick myself up"), but its rock at its most positive. Maybe with a different band, it would be unlistenable, but with the ensemble hard at work, even the most schmaltzy material sounds incredible. Personally, I hate uber-romantic songs, but I can't get enough of "At My Most Beautiful." And its not all straightforward stuff, either. "Parakeet" is a weird, weird piece, but its beautiful lyrically. And then there's "Lotus", an amazing completely nonsensical piece with a chorus that hisses itself out, and reminiscent of another R.E.M. track: "Losing My Religion".